The Ninth Chapter
In which our heroine travels to a distant village and encounters a stranger there. She then thinks about horses and the five Elements.

Vieria had left the village early in the morning, before the others were awake, to avoid all the nasty rumors and insults that would no doubt follow if anybody saw her leaving the village for parts and reasons unknown. Mashiu had told her that the village the Forest Wolf officer lived in was half a day’s worth of walking away – she had not been on such a long trip before, having lived her whole life in the village, mostly trying to stay hidden from the derision of the other villagers.

She was, however, confident that she would make the trip without much difficulty. If I am to become a great strategist, she thought, I need to understand the ways of the Element of Earth. I cannot fail on this journey – only succeed by growth. Pain is not a sign of defeat – pain is a sign of growth.

Vieria walked slowly at first, careful not to exhaust herself too early. As she left her village, she did not bother looking back, but instead studied the landscape she was passing.

Not much change, she thought. Soon I will be seeing the great salt marshes the Eastern Province is known for, for the village of the Forest Wolf officer is in that direction. When that happens, I better be prepared for the hordes of mosquitoes that flock in great numbers to all unwary travelers, seeking to suck in their blood and to leave their skin full of great blisters and sore, itching spots.

“So this is the town,” Vieria commented. She had been walking for two hours straight, looking for the place where she had been told her contact would reside in. It looked like any of the countless taverns you could find in most villages, and the people inside were probably just as rowdy once it got dark as anywhere else. The walls were made of wood, just like any other building Vieria had ever seen except maybe for some of the finest buildings she faintly remembered having seen once as a child, but she wasn’t even sure if she had seen those back then or if it had been just a dream or her imagination. It was always hard to be sure – you could never tell, one’s memory was like that. Memories were the domain of the Element of Water, constantly shifting and in motion. How easy it could be, Vieria had many times thought, if memories had been aligned with the Element of Earth instead, ever constant and never shifting one bit. But then again, in that case the Element of Water might have taken the place of her body, and then her body might constantly be shifting on and off, even more so than it usually did, for even the Element of Earth was not completely stable – earthquakes often moved it, but then again, it was true that those were not truly events of the Element of Earth, for when there were earthquakes, there were often volcanoes as well, and volcanoes were a mixture of the Elements of Earth and Fire, so perhaps Earth really was as stable as everybody said it was, after all.

Vieria did not know if she should really think about these things so much – after all, they had been thought and thought and thought many times over by people of a far more advanced age than she was, and they surely had already thought of everything she could ever think of. But, then again, she then thought bitterly, it was people far much older than she was who were in charge too, and they never thought about anything, like how to make the people a little bit happier, and that their wealth might still be completely unrivaled even if they did not bleed everybody’s blood to the ground and then take that blood and use it to bath in. So, yeah, there probably were angles to things that even she could discover, if only she would think of it hard enough. And it was perhaps not even necessary that she would think of it very hard, for after all, things like this came to her naturally and it seemed like they were the most obvious thing in the world. But, she thought, and her face fell again, did that not mean that it was only the richest and oldest people who did not think of these things? Could they be so wise that they were actually stupid? And would that not mean that just about everybody else had already thought of all this, so that all of her thoughts were worth nothing at all, since everybody knew them already?

“Hey, pretty one,” somebody said, waking her from her pondering. “Whathca doin’ around here?”

Vieria blinked and turned to look. Standing in front of her, leaning against the wall of the bar, was a young man, maybe a few years older than her. He had a sly look, in fact he himself looked pretty darn sly, like he was the slyest person on earth, yes, slysomeness incarnate. He was wearing black clothes, which stroke Vieria as odd, since it was a hot day anyway and wearing so black clothes was bound to make you sweat like a horse, of course this was not a saying Vieria used idly, since she knew little about horses, only that they were the animals the Imperial Guard used as their mounts, and they were reputed to be very fast and very fearsome and that there was a death penalty for anybody who would give commoners horses, and she most definitely did not know anything about how much they sweated, but she had heard some people in town using the expression ‘sweat like a horse’, and rumor was that the saying had come all the way from the Imperial Palace in the Imperial Province, said by the captain of the guard and nobody else, so if somebody of that high rank who was in contact with horses every day and knew a lot of them and could touch them without being executed, so if somebody liked that used the phrase sweat like a horse, then that had to mean something, of course, it could also mean sweating only a little, since Vieria still did not know how much horses do sweat, and an expression could swing both ways, so it was quite a mystery, nonetheless, Vieria felt confident in using the expression since she had heard it used in a context where it implied that it did indeed mean that the subject of the phrase was, indeed, sweating a lot, of course, in the situations in which she had heard it, nobody saying had really been of as high a rank as the captain of the guard was, so even if it had originated from his mouth, there was no way of knowing if the meaning of the phrase had not become perverted along the way, after all, things like that could happen, and if it did indeed mean that somebody was sweating only a little, it still sounded like it meant that somebody sweated a lot, so there was a good chance that the meaning of it might suffer such a perversion, but, Vieria then thought, if enough people misused the phrase in that way, and the captain of the guard was left as the only person who used it the correct way, would the incorrect use of the phrase then not, indeed, become a correct use of the phrase, leaving the captain of the guard as the only one in the world who used the phrase incorrectly, unless, of course, there were others misusing or using correctly, whichever was the case in this case, the phrase that way, in which case it would be a question of majority, and the one who had more members would finally get their interpretation through, unless a situation was born were both had equally many supporters, in which case there would be lots of confusion and blaming and finger-pointing, until, finally, the usage of the phrase would be in so much question that it would become meaningless and fade into obscurity.

Vieria flinched. She most certainly did not want to be a member of such a misuse of language. Language was something to be treasured and respected – without language, one could not communicate with others, one could not get their thoughts across. A person without a language was like a simple animal, a cat or a dog, or perhaps just a lizard. No, she would not use the term ‘to sweat like a horse’ before she knew better what it meant.

Back then, to the man. Vieria realized that she had gotten distracted by her pondering and turned her eyes back to him. Well, the blackness of the man’s clothes had already been well established. So it was time for something else. What about his tattoos?

Vieria glanced at the man’s wrists quickly. No, nothing very telling. Just the family tattoo in place.

“Well met, stranger,” Vieria replied. “I am looking for somebody, and I beg for the five Elements to guide my way and help me find the man I am looking for. Could you spare a moment of your time for me?”

Secretly, Vieria disliked speaking in this elaborate, formal tone. Especially to strangers, people she did not know if they were worth respecting or not. After all, everybody could somebody who worked for and helped support the corrupt Imperial system. If she met such people, she most definitely would not have wanted to talk politely to them. She would have wanted to spit in their faces and beat them to the ground, and the consequences be damned.

Of course, she thought, mentally smiling, once she could get a rebellion going, she could do just that. Crush all the Empire-sympathizers under her feet and grind them to powder like little bugs. The pitiful, worthless things they were.

Ah well. There was not much to be done yet. Randomly going around killing and beating people was not a good thing for the rebellion. The leader of the rebellion being killed before she could even start it would be an even worse thing.

“I am sorry,” the man said. “I am afraid I simply do not have the time at the moment.”

Vieria wondered how the man could not have the time if he was just standing there, looking sly. But she shrugged – it was none of her business, and she was just glad to get rid of him. “Alright, then. Let the Spirits and the Elements guide your way.”

They bowed to each other, and Vieria continued on her way.